22 minute read

United States

Educational System—overview


Free & Compulsory Education: After the American Revolution, pro-education spokespersons presented strong views on the best way to form and preserve the character of its citizenry through education. Already there was awareness that a quality education had a price, just as did any other quality services. Pennsylvania's state constitution made provisions for teachers in public schools to be paid by the state, a practice emulated by other states as it became apparent that children who could not afford to pay for schooling clearly needed the state to provide free schools. Eventually states passed provisions to compel children to attend schools. But just as in colonial days, when children were apprenticed to tradesman at young ages, during the nineteenth century textile manufacturers, packing plants, and mining outfits hired children to perform menial jobs. It would be the twentieth century before enforcement standards were sufficient to ensure full compliance.

However, during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, opponents of compulsory education grew more numerous and more vocal, inspired in part by successes of parents that have home-schooled their children through elementary school and secondary school. School bullying, school shootings, arrests of teachers on various charges, and poor marks received by U.S. youngsters on standardized tests have led critics to say that compulsory education should not be defended without serious thought and conscience searching. By 2001, although compulsory attendance continued in all states, legislators in Washington and other states were seriously pondering legislation that if passed would nullify or amend the law in those states.


Age Limits: All states have a minimum age for allowing a child to begin formal education, but there is no single national standard as to what the birth-month cutoff should be. The majority of states and the District of Columbia have statewide birth dates for entering five-yearolds that all districts must conform to as a kindergarten entrance policy requirement. In 2001 the state law in North Dakota set seven as the entrance age, but that law may be lowered by state legislation. Other exceptions are Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; individual school districts set the policy in those five states. All states have set a minimum dropout age somewhere between 14 and 18, with the most common age requirement being 16 (in 36 states).


Academic Year: Plans by several school districts to lengthen the academic year by four or five days have met with angry protests by students. The combination of increasingly more complex subject matter, state testing requirements, and public perceptions regarding school quality has led critics and supporters of education alike to advocate more school days in the annual calendar. Most commonly, school boards propose the increases in an attempt to raise student performance marks on standardized tests. One such protest in March 2001 occurred at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after the school board extended the calendar from 180 to 185 days.

Every now and then a school board comes into the news when it considers the notion of extending the school year through the summer. During the twenty-first century, the debate over whether the school year for elementary and secondary students should be extended to 11 or 12 months will be waged even more vigorously. Few schools have actually adopted such a schedule: parents argue that the change would disrupt their family lives, teachers argue that their workload is already burdensome, and students complain that their opportunity to earn money for college would be jeopardized without the chance to work summer jobs. Employers that depend on students also object to the proposal.


Enrollment: Record enrollments most definitely will be recorded during the twenty-first century. During the 1990s, the U.S. population grew by nearly 25 million people, surpassing every decade but one and guaranteeing maximum use of schools for years to come.

During the 1950s, 28 million babies were born, the largest number of births in a single 10-year period recorded up to the year 2000. Beginning in 1951, school children began enrolling in kindergartens and first grade in numbers that were unprecedented. The dramatic rise would, in 1960, begin to have an effect on secondary schools, followed by an explosion in college enrollments starting in 1964. The number of students coming into these schools at every level was due to the popularly named Baby Boom, which refers to the skyrocketing increase in births after World War II from 1946 to 1964. Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools peaked in 1971, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. As increasing numbers of U.S. parents divorced, enrollments of elementary and high school students also declined from 1971 to 1984.

The second half of 1985 once again saw a return to the trend of increasing enrollments. This coincided with an overall increase in the population. Enrollment in elementary and secondary schools reached high levels in the mid-1990s, and that trend continued to the end of the decade. U.S. public elementary school enrollment increased from 29.2 million in 1989 to 33.7 million in 1999, the last date for which estimates were available. Likewise, public high schools reported 11.4 million enrollees in 1989 and an estimated 13.5 million in 1999. These stunning increases in public K-12 schools are not reflective of the trends in private elementary and secondary schools, however. Over the same 10-year period, the private schools actually reported a 1 percent decrease. Altogether in 1999, about 6 million students enrolled in private K-12 schools.

The combined enrollment of public and private school students in U.S. elementary and secondary schools at the start of the fall 2000 semester was an estimated 53 million people, according to the federal government. The 1990 enrollment of 46.5 million students in these schools translates to a jump in enrollment of 14 percent in a single decade. Government analysts project further growth through 2005, although at a less dramatic percentage of increase than was observed during the 1990s.

By 2005, the Department of Education anticipates a leveling off of enrollment in the total number of elementary and secondary students, with decreases seen between 2005 and 2010, although projections for enrollment through 2006 suggest that numbers of secondary school students will reach an all-time high before dropping. Enrollments in elementary school are expected to stay high but somewhat more constant until 2009. The decrease in growth reflects a lower annual birth rate between 1991 and 1997.

Educator Diane Ravitch noted in 1984 that while total enrollment ballooned in the United States from 23 million to 40 million students between l945 and l980, schools declined from l85,000 institutions to fewer than 86,000 during the same time period, a reflection of the increasing popularity of consolidated elementary and secondary schools. What is difficult to predict in 2001 is whether the trend to build a few larger, consolidated schools or numerous, smaller, community-based schools will emerge victorious. Supporters and critics of each system are numerous and vocal. The consolidated schools tend to have larger classes, fewer teachers and administrators, and strong emphasis on extracurricular sports competition with rival schools.


Private School Tuition: According to the latest figures posted by the federal government, private schools charged an average tuition of $3,116 in 1993-1994. Parochial school tuition was significantly lower than that of nonsectarian schools. Catholic schools charged $2,178 on average; schools with other religious affiliations charged $2,915 on average. Nonsectarian private schools charged an average tuition of $6,631.


Immigration & Bilingual Education: U.S. residents aged five years and older who either speak no English or have a small grasp of the language are increasing in number, presenting additional challenges to teachers in the classroom. Many immigrants came to the United States from countries where English was not the official language, and they have moved into communities where proximity to family or friends has offered a compelling reason for learning a new language.

Preliminary reports from Census 2000 indicate that figures will even be higher for the number of language minorities than is available in the 1990 data, the latest information posted by the government on a state-by-state basis. Since the 1970 Census, numbers of Asian and Hispanic immigrants have increased. Large cities show significant additions of Hispanic populations, particularly Texas cities such as San Antonio, where Hispanic residents have been the dominant culture numerically since 1990. The Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative and Urban and Regional Research reports that Hispanic residents doubled in Austin, Dallas, and Forth Worth, while Houston reported an 80 percent increase since 1990. On the East Coast, Asians grew in similar large populations by 70 percent in Newark and Jersey City, New Jersey. Asians and Hispanics reported increases of at least 50 percent in large cities such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

Based on 1990 Census information, when the population was 230,445,777 people, the number of speakers who spoke a primary language other than English was 31,844,979. Of that total, 4,826,958 people spoke very little English, and 1,845,243 said they spoke it not at all. In particular, of people who reported Spanish as their primary language, some 3,804,792 reported that they spoke English poorly, while 3,040,828 reported that they did not speak English at all. Even more significant numbers for education show that 761,778 people between the ages of 5 and 17 spoke English only a little and 145,785 spoke it not at all, a significant increase since 1980. In terms of state representation, California reports 681,504 households where English is spoken not at all and 1,621,098 households where English and another primary language are spoken. Overall population in the United States in March 2001 was 283,859,806 people, according to government figures.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1967 was an attempt by the federal government to assist, in particular, school districts that found themselves with a growing influx of youngsters who were primarily speakers of Spanish or another language such as Chinese. The Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs intends to develop linguistically and culturally diverse students under the auspices of the federal Department of Education. Bilingual education most commonly has both native Spanish and native English speakers taking part in an education program wherein part of a day's school instruction is given in English and part in Spanish or another language.

English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction enables the student whose primary language is Spanish to receive concentrated assistance to learn English grammar and composition. Other classes may be taught in any combination of English and the additional language. Instruction in the native language and English, rather than English alone, has been determined to be of great assistance to students needing to master material in other classes, such as math and science. One of the drawbacks to the federal bilingual education program is a pronounced dearth of bilingual education and ESL teachers. Consequently, since 1980, federal funding has been directed to numerous teacher-training institutions to produce more than 80,000 teachers with bilingual skills.


Technology in Education: While computers are found in an increasing number of schools, and students themselves report increasing familiarity with the Internet, the majority of teachers in a 2001 survey report low levels of Internet usage. Nearly 87 percent of teachers surveyed said they were acquainted with the Internet, but only 40 percent used the Internet 30 minutes or more daily for educational purposes, according to NetDay, a nonprofit education group that assists teachers with technology.

Although elementary and secondary educators continue to put the main classroom emphasis on textbooks for student reading, technology experts see an upsurge in school Internet use since 1993. Many schools maintain a Web site; according to Web66, an international registry of schools at the University of Minnesota, nearly 9,000 elementary and secondary schools had Web sites in April 2001.

Outside the schools, thanks to home and library computers, 45 percent of America's 30 million children have access to the Internet, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project study released in February 2001. Almost three-quarters of teens aged 12 to 17 can access the Internet, while fewer than 1 in 3 beneath the age of 12 can do so.


Mathematics & Science Teaching: The National Science Foundation takes a visible role in stressing reforms and accomplishments in U.S. schools from kindergarten through graduate education. NSF's Division of Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education provides one of the best sources for K-12 grant opportunities and general information on science education for teachers.

Science and math education have been priorities of numerous presidential administrations, but while there has been slow progress over time, in the late twentieth century the issue acquired more urgency. In spite of administration concerns, U.S. student performances overall continued at disappointing levels on national tests, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, although the NCES stresses that some U.S. youngsters do post scores equal to those of any other nation.

The NSF released scores comparing eighth graders from 38 nations and comparing their scores to similar testing conducted when they were in the fourth grade. American eighth graders had dropped measurably in scores in that four-year period, a tendency that a NSF spokesperson said might be attributed to more middle school math and science classes being staffed by teachers who were non-majors in those subjects. Overall, U.S. youngsters scored only about average on the tests, which is significantly behind the scores in Japan and Korea. They also did not keep up with gains in test scores over a four-year period exhibited by students from Canada.

In 2000, the Science and Math Teaching for the Twenty-First Century Report, also called the Sen. John Glenn Commission Report, offered strategies for improving educational performance of math and science students. In addition, as had his predecessor Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush announced in 2001 that accomplishing gains in science and math testing would be a priority of his administration. His administration recommended annual testing in state-approved math and science exams every year for students in the fourth through eighth grades.


Students with Disabilities: In 1968, the Handicapped Children's Early Education Program started as a pilot program to provide quality special education and other services to disabled children from birth through the third grade. Congress saw a need for providing families with these early intervention programs to assist children with disabilities and to provide their caregivers with information specific to their educational needs. The program began with 24 demonstration projects in 1968. Over the years, the program was greatly expanded to include model outreach projects, early intervention research disbursement, experimental projects, and in-service training projects, among other innovations. In 1990 the organization changed its name to the Early Education Program for Children with Disabilities (EEPCD).

Since 1997 and the passage of a number of federal amendments, including the Amendments to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997, EEPCD has not been a freestanding program. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 meant a significant expansion in educational opportunities and services for disabled children. With its strong emphasis on learning, the program expressed the expectation that disabled children could receive an education with results that would become apparent in a meaningful way after schooling ended.

Since 1980, the number of students enrolled in programs for disabled children has slowly grown. About 10 percent of the school population fell under the category of disabled during the 1980-1981 school year, according to government figures. That number increased to 13 percent during the 1997-1998 school year. The fastest growing area is that segment of the population termed learning disabled. The population of learning disabled children was only four percent in 1980-1981, but it had risen two points to six percent in 1997-1998.


Curriculum & Educational Reform: The incorporation in 1906 of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (founded in 1905 by magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie) is the starting point for curriculum development in the twentieth century. This foundation became integral in the formation of standards and a standardized curriculum for all U.S. schools, as well as eventually providing a structured, unbiased means to assess the quality of educational institutions. The foundation set the standard of a single credit for courses taken in secondary schools, a recommendation met with opposition by critics who believed that certain science, mathematics, and humanities courses have more educational value than some courses perceived to be easier to pass. The NEA further fine-tuned reform when it defined core subjects required for graduation, as well as the minimum number of credits required by a student seeking a diploma (including requirements in mathematics and English).

Among numerous other changes in education over the last 110 years, the curriculum has altered considerably. Subjects generally recommended by leading educators included classical and modern languages; mathematics courses such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; miscellaneous science courses; and humanities courses in history, geography, and English. Even though relatively few students advanced from high school to college in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the U.S. curriculum has been traditionally based on college-entrance.

In 1995, however, the U.S. Department of Education advocated that the secondary school curriculum be strengthened and enriched to include a focus on life beyond the classroom, issuing an online report entitled "Raising the Educational Achievement of Secondary School Students." While early American education stressed rote learning and discipline, schools in the twenty-first century must stress challenging, rigorous studies that show students a correlation between classroom studies and the occupations and endeavors they may undertake after graduation. Teachers ideally should involve students in an active way to produce knowledge, rather than merely to sit passively and receive lectures. While schools are responsible for material mandated by the state or other governing boards, they should also find innovative ways to teach that fully engage students in community, service, and work situations, enabling students to perceive the value of what they learn.

College preparedness is not to be wholly dismissed, however. The trend of placing students in vocational or general education tracks, with subjects taught that are well beneath the breadth and depth of college-preparatory tracks, faced criticism at the close of the twentieth century. Students in the lower tracks receive repetitive training in specific skills and received little opportunity to exercise problem solving and critical thinking. In addition, students coming from certain socioeconomic classes and those facing language barriers find themselves, in effect, segregated because of tracking and a concern for how students in a particular school may perform overall on standardized tests.

After studying secondary schools considered among the best in the United States, researchers Fred Newmann, director of The Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, and G. G. Wehlage identified five characteristics connected to optimal instruction:

  • Schools emphasize higher-order thinking to combine facts and ideas and then to come up with conclusions and interpretations of the material.
  • Students are encouraged to be problem solvers with a broad depth of knowledge and to understand the core ideas of various disciplines, as well as to see the ways various disciplines connect.
  • Students apply their knowledge in ways that would prove useful in business, the military, personal investments, or recreation choices outside the classroom's walls.
  • Students are encouraged to develop rhetorical skills, demonstrating that they can communicate knowledge of a subject and engage listeners in a meaningful way. In effect, they learn from their peers and vice versa.
  • The classroom should provide a supportive, respectful environment where students can take intellectual risks and learn in an environment highly conducive to meeting the educational needs of all. Rather than deposit slower learners in remedial programs, the educators suggest that students may achieve better if placed in challenging environments.

The researchers also found that the main exceptions to including students of varying abilities in one classroom may be made in subjects such as mathematics or reading, where students may be grouped with others capable of roughly similar performance levels.

Another recent development in educational reform has been the interest in mandatory testing. The impetus for statewide testing as a mechanism to work for schools of higher quality was a 1983 study called "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform," produced following a mandate from Reagan-era Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell. Some of that report's recommendations were to improve character, maintain better discipline, and reduce risks and addictive behaviors. Other recommendations were designed to bring about more effective teaching, more input from parents and local governments, and improved performance in all basics such as mathematics, science, and English.

"A Nation at Risk" coincided with poor performances by American youth on test scores in mathematics, science, and other skill areas when compared to youths in some other countries, as well as complaints from the military and business over the academic ineptitude of recruits and new workers. Presidents from Reagan through George W. Bush have made education reform the focus of campaign rhetoric, and have, during their respective administrations, pushed hard for high achievement rankings equal to or superior to results produced in the classrooms of other nations. The fact that schools blessed with resources for their relatively privileged students tend to achieve far better test results than do schools whose resources are marginal or deficient promises to contribute to a long and sometimes acrimonious debate over standards and testing.


Textbooks: Not until nearly 1690 did any sort of a uniform schoolbook appear that targeted knowledge specifically for maturing minds. The illustrated New England Primer appeared around or before 1690, offering religious instruction and the way to virtue in rhyming verse with couplets and epigrams, along the lines of "Time cuts down all, Both great and small."

The New England Primer's sale of some 2 million copies during the colonial period cannot be overlooked as an important unifying influence in the education of children of various sects. Schools of the Northeast were similar in their piety and sober atmosphere, mattering little if the congregations were Calvinist, Congregational, Puritan, or Unitarian. Students went on from the Primer to learn psalms and passages from the Bible.

During the twenty-first century, by contrast, educators are faced with organized protests to textbook selections. Protests since 1990 have been directed against textbooks said to contain materials that are perceived to be any of the following: anti-Christian, anti-American, or representative of so-called "New Age" secular humanism. From Virginia to California, parents occasionally inform schools that they want teachers to send home parental permission slips if an assigned novel or collection of stories has one or more scenes containing sexual situations. Other textbook conflicts have arisen over matters of science, particularly how scientific theories of evolution are presented, and miscellaneous stories or plays included in literature anthologies. In one extreme case, a Florida principal authorized cutting out a play about AIDS from a textbook.

The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) advises that students in elementary and secondary school will read some 32,000 pages in textbooks before graduation. ERIC recommends that state authorities involved in the selection process of adopting textbooks should be aware that textbooks in the past have excluded the achievements of women and minorities, as well as sometimes satisfying various political agendas. Women, for example, were depicted in these textbooks in dependent, domestic roles. The representation of women and minorities too often was limited to the first in particular fields such as aviation or law, rather than putting emphasis on contributions made cooperatively by women and men of all races in every aspect of American life, such as the settling of the frontier.

Teachers have begun to resist the limited choices in textbooks offered by the committees appointed by the state department of education. For example, the National Council of Teachers of English in May 1990 considered member objections to state-adopted texts that tended to control the curriculum and to limit professional choices of the teachers entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the material in the classroom. The teachers wanted the freedom not to adopt textbooks recommended by the committees or to use those textbooks in the curriculum in ways they felt most professionally comfortable. Other hard-fought discussions concern the degree of perceived difficulty of textbooks, as teachers attempt to help students pass challenging state tests required for graduation. Such was the case in California in 2001, as teachers, superintendents, and publisher representatives disagreed over the inclusion of a challenging mathematics textbook on a state-approved list.

Each year the state and local authorities selecting textbooks are making choices worth millions of dollars; the cost in California alone was estimated to be $415 million in 2001, according to the Los Angeles Times. Given that amount of money and the possibility of conflict over subject matter in textbooks representing a variety of disciplines, it is instructive to note how relatively smoothly the selection of textbooks goes each year in nearly all states. When a conflict does occur, however, the incident is likely to draw wide press coverage, suggesting that such conflicts are more common than they really are.

Less controversial is the selection process for textbooks purchased by students for college classes. In many cases, academic freedom allows instructors to choose the texts they believe will best prepare their students to understand course objectives. In a few cases, particularly where frequently offered courses are taught by adjunct or part-time instructors, a department head or appointed committee may choose the books.


Foreign Influences on Educational System: From primary to tertiary education, the strongest foreign influence on the American educational system has come from Germany. The concept of a kindergarten is a German educational innovation that has been even more successful in the United States than in its country of origin. Kindergartens were popularized in America by educators Elizabeth Peabody; William T. Harris, a St. Louis educator who became U.S. Commissioner of Education (1889-1906); and Margarethe Schurz, wife of Carl Schurz, a German èmigrè who was U.S. Secretary of the Interior and a Civil War general. Eventually, all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia adopted kindergarten programs. Mrs. Schurz learned about the operation of kindergartens and their theory directly from Friedrich Froebel, the German educator credited with the establishments of kindergarten programs in Germany. However, kindergartens met with opposition both here and in Germany, and it was not until after 1920 that the United States saw a great leap in nationwide acceptance of kindergartens as ordinary additions to school districts.

In higher education, two German innovations adopted here were the conferring of Ph.D. degrees and the German concept of scholarly research. Until the late nineteenth century, American scholars wishing to obtain additional knowledge, conduct research, and acquire the status of a doctoral degree traveled to German institutions of higher learning to do the necessary work needed to attain the highest level of scholarly attainment. In time, rightly or wrongly, American institutions began to equate the number of doctorates earned by its faculty with academic excellence. Various systems of rating universities invariably publish a ranking of faculty with the percentage of those with Ph.Ds.

American institutions in time tended to replicate German models for conducting research by raising research money from private industry and soliciting large gifts from benefactors—creating endowments to regulate these funds—and obtaining government funding. Individual professors and graduate departments soon found how expensive it was to conduct research without well-planned sources of financing from government or private sources. In time sophisticated guidelines were written to develop ethical policies dealing with extremely complex issues that arose from accepting large sums of money from sources outside the universities.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceUnited States - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education